The life cycle of a flash drive is a question which has been around for a long time. There are many factors which contribute to the longevity of a flash drive. Let us consider the following:
There are three main components which effect the life cycle of a USB flash drive.
- Flash memory type
- Construction of PCB and components used
- USB connectivity, the physical process
Flash drives use three primary types of flash memory. There is SLC, MLC and TLC memory wafers (NAND memory). SLC is Single Layer Cell memory. MLC is Multi Layer Cell memory. TLC is Triple Layer Cell memory. GetUSB.info did an in-depth write-up about SLC and MLC flash memory if you’re interested, but for this article we have:
- SLC memory is good for about 100,000 write cycles.
- MLC memory is good for about 10,000 write cycles.
- TLC memory is good for about 3,000 write cycles.
Most UFDs use MLC memory because it’s cheaper to make and allows manufacturers to offer more storage in a smaller space. It’s difficult to figure out which type of memory a UFD has, but it doesn’t matter anyway – most flash drives are more limited by other factors.
As of this article update of January 2022, most USB 2.0 product is made of MLC NAND memory because MLC is the least expensive being manufactured at this time. TLC memory is the most common memory type for USB 3.0 product because TLC is the least expensive which also satisfies the large storage capacities of USB 3.0 product. SLC memory is very difficult to source and very expensive and not found in most flash drive products.
The second component which makes up the life cycle of a USB flash drive is how it’s made. Yes, the PCB (printed circuit board) matters. So do the components used on the device and the soldering quality. Collectively, these elements are absolutely crucial to the performance and longevity of a flash drive. For example, the USB specification states that, at a minimum, a four-layer PCB is required to make a USB device to specification; however, 95% of USB flash drives use a two-layer PCB. Two layer PCB are much less expensive to make and thus keeps the unit price lower, but this is not a good strategy if the ultimate goal is performance and longevity. Companies like Nexcopy manufacture a four-layer product which results in better performance, more reliable and longer lasting.
Last, we must consider the physical connector of a USB flash drive and how the device is used throughout it’s life cycle. This is the actual socket which connects the UFD to the host computer. Doing some research, most USB Type A socket manufacturers provide a specification called Mating Durability. The spec is around 1,500 connections. WOW, that sure limits the life cycle, but I doubt many would connect the UFD to a host over 1,500 times.
Last, the chassis or case help the USB life cycle. The chassis helps the UFD look cool, but also provides a small amount of protection against wear-n-tear. UFDs are exposed to all sorts of shock. Whether it be physical shock or electric shock, it’s important to treat your UFD with care. True, there are some indestructible flash drives out there, but the point here is try not to let external factors instantly destroy your drive. The best method for shock protection is A) don’t drop, slam or smash your UFD and B) keep the cap on so the connectors don’t rub or touch another object which could create electric shock.
So, to sum everything up: Given you don’t physically ruin your drive, you have about 1,500 connections and about 10,000 write cycles before you can expect the USB life cycle to become questionable.